GREAT BARRINGTON — In some of his last rounds while in office, state Sen. Benjamin Downing made his first visit to Berkshire Community College's South County Center, and during a Friday afternoon forum, he offered a message of hope for the future of the Berkshires.
The five-term senator announced in January that he will not seek re-election this fall and will likely explore a new vocation in the private sector.
On Friday, instead of detailing his political track record, he shared with the forum audience his own coming-of-age story, something that seemed to resonate with the audiences as they laughed, frowned and nodded with him.
The BCC center, located on Great Barrington's Main Street, not only serves as a satellite campus for the Pittsfield-based community college, but it's a hub for the college's Adult Learning Program and other community activities.
Nearly two dozen attendees, from all ages and walks of life, got to listen and ask questions during the session dubbed, "Chat with Ben," for which BCC students could also earn graduation credits.
Downing talked about his life, and how he's grown from a 9-year-old attending campaign barbecues with his father — the late former Berkshire District Attorney Gerard D. Downing — to mowing lawns at Tanglewood, to attending law school, to running for and securing a state Senate seat in his first bid, at age 24, and now representing 52 Western Massachusetts communities.
"I grew up in a time when people felt things in the county and the region were very dire," Downing said.
He was born on Sept. 11, 1981, at Fairview Hospital amid a nurses' strike, and during his adolescence, the General Electric Co. exodus from the area began.
"I was told that the best days of the Berkshires were behind us and to study hard, go on to better hills and not look back," Downing said.
His experiences into adulthood paralleled any average millennial. He would go on to college, come back to a summer job doing lawn and custodial work at Tanglewood, with no plan, just plenty of time to think about his future as he trimmed the acres of green.
An opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., with a friend led him to internships and rookie jobs working for congressmen on Capitol Hill, where he also tended bar to make ends meet.
Eventually, he landed in the office of U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, and reconnected with the needs and developments of the Massachusetts commonwealth.
"I got to work for my congressman ... and I realized that [politics] was something I wanted to be involved in. It wasn't just something my family would talk about at home."
He's told the rest of his story often in public — losing his father, going to law school, being prompted by his younger brother, whom he would more recently lose, to run for office — and ultimately spending a decade developing a respected track record that's gotten him re-elected and "representing a community that's been there for my family."
"The 10 years since [his 2006 election] have been remarkable," Downing said, noting the work he's done to establish clean energy and solar power generation in Massachusetts, and pushing for investment in higher education and broadband.
"As much as I feel there were many days of hitting my head against a wall, after 10 years, I'm more optimistic and hopeful of the future of this region," he said.
The senator said that while Berkshire County has its share of challenges, from dealing with the opioid crisis and improving economic health, he argued that the challenges are no different in neighboring counties and states.
"I think that the future for the Berkshires is bright if we can get our act together and do things right," he said.
Among the priorities he listed that he will continue to pursue until his last minute in office are: investment in public K-12, early childhood and higher education; better municipal infrastructure and transportation, and full-coverage broadband.
"We also need smarter economic development strategies, and to be thinking about working to support the companies we have right here, right now," Downing said.
Forum participants questioned the senator about his stance and state policies on broadband. He supports following through with the Wired West multitown initiative.
He also fielded questions on the opioid addiction epidemic, the current state hiring freeze, and on why he's so optimistic in progress amid seemingly negative political and election year rhetoric.
Downing said he believes that when people push politicians to know and to take on the challenges their communities face, "municipalities can come together to tackle those challenges."
He cited small town coffee hours, where residents and local officials brought to the table their issues and ideas, around cups of coffee and boxes of doughnuts; and students advocated for changes in their schools and expressed a desire to live and work in a community with a high standard of living.
"I'm hopeful based on the people I've met," Downing said.
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.